Hayley Wickenheiser says retirement not an easy decision

Hayley Wickenheiser has hung up her skates. Wickenheiser joined CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend to talk about what's next for her in life after the game.

Hockey star's next step is to enter into the field of medicine

Wickenheiser said she has mixed emotions about retirement, adding it feels like a graduation and a funeral. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

The decision to retire wasn't one that came easily for Canadian hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser.

The country's all-time leading scorer announced her retirement Friday after 23 years on the Canadian women's team and almost a dozen Olympic and world championship gold medals.

Considered one of the greatest female players of all time, women's hockey grew in popularity considerably during her time on the ice. The number of registered female players in Canada went from 16,000 in her first year on the national team to almost 87,000 today.

But retirement had been on her mind for a few months now, she says. Deciding she couldn't put off her entry into medical school any longer, she's decided to hang up the skates, she told CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend.

"These decisions are never made easy or without a lot of thought," Wickenheiser said. 

She says she's excited about what lies ahead, but admits she has some mixed emotions about leaving the game she has played and loved since she was 15 years old.

"It feels like a bit of a funeral and a graduation all at the same time," she said.

Wickenheiser added everything she has in life is because of the game. Giving credit to the people she grew up with, played with and was coached by, along with the people of her hometown of Shaunavon, Sask., Wickenheiser said she doesn't think she would have had the career she did if people had said "no" to her desire to play or made it difficult to get into the game.

"It's really where my heart and my love of the game lies, is on my outdoor rink in my backyard in Shaunavon," she said. "That's kind of how I started the game and what I'll always love about the game."

Memorable moments

Some of the moments that stick out in Wickenheiser's mind are the games she played on Canada's national roster. 

"I was a 15-year-old kid and on top of the world really," she said of the 1994 IIHF Women's World Hockey Championship in Lake Placid, NY.

Since 2002, Wickenheiser has won Olympic gold for Team Canada in four straight Olympic games. Those gold medal wins in Salt Lake City in 2002, Torino in 2006, Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014 were some of the moments which stick out in her mind, she said.

She mentioned players who helped paved the way for her in hockey and with whom she played early in her career, such as Stacy Wilson, France Saint-Louis and Judy Diduck.

"They taught me how to win and what it meant to be a pro," Wickenheiser said.

Now medicine is in her sights.

Comparing it to the game she loves, Wickenheiser said medicine appealed to her because of the team environment and snap decisions involved, and the opportunity to change lives.

"Hopefully, maybe I'll have a chance to make a bigger impact in the world of medicine than I did in hockey."

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend and The Canadian Press